There's an urge every NFL offseason to be different. Go against the flow.
I did in 1996. The Cowboys were coming off their third Super Bowl championship in four seasons. I put the Green Bay Packers No. 1 in my annual offseason rankings that June. I hit - the Packers won it all that year. That was my best call.
My worst call? I put Pittsburgh No. 1 in 1998 and Philadelphia No. 1 in 2005. The Steelers and Eagles missed the playoffs those seasons, both with 6-10 records. I learned my lesson - stay away from the Keystone State.
Parity has taught me another lesson. The meek can inherit the earth. I placed St. Louis 23rd in my annual off-season rankings in 1999, New England 22nd in 2001 and the New York Giants 21st in 2007. All went on to win Super Bowls.
I picked New England No. 1 last June, and the Patriots came within 36 seconds of being labeled the greatest team in NFL history. But when Plaxico Burress caught that 13-yard touchdown pass on a fade rout with 35 seconds left in the Super Bowl, the Patriots lost the game and their bid for a perfect season.
The Giants won the Lombardi Trophy, but I'm still of the belief the Patriots are the best team in football. That's why I'm putting New England atop my off-season rankings once again in 2008. It's the first time I've gone with a team in back-to-back off-seasons since the Packers in 1996-97. Green Bay went to the Super Bowl both years.
The NFL always has been and always will be a game of quarterbacks - and the Patriots have the best in Tom Brady. He presides over the highest-scoring offense in NFL history. His prolific right arm produced 4,806 passing yards, a record 50 touchdown passes and 589 points in 2007.
New England played 1,140 minutes of football in 19 games last season and trailed on the scoreboard only 160 of those minutes.
The 2006 NFL champion Indianapolis Colts also are allowed to have Super Bowl aspirations in 2008. They have Peyton Manning. That's why I put them No. 2. The Cowboys are allowed to have Super Bowl aspirations. They have Tony Romo. That's why they are No. 3. The San Diego Chargers are allowed to have Super Bowl aspirations. They have an emerging Philip Rivers at quarterback. That's why they are No. 4.
Find the quarterbacks and you'll find the legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
NFL offseason rankings
1. New England
Tom Brady. Enough said. He's the triggerman of the most prolific offense in NFL history. Want more? Randy Moss. Laurence Maroney. Wes Welker. All that firepower produced an NFL-record 589 points in 2007. The defense let New England down on the final drive of the season, and that group will be without its Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel in 2008. But the Patriots survived the loss of a better corner in Ty Law and continued to win championships. The Patriots needed to get younger at linebacker and have done so with first-round draft pick Jerod Mayo. They also needed to get deeper at cornerback and did so with veteran starters Fernando Bryant and Jason Webster in free agency.
Final '07 ranking: 2
The Colts finished as the No. 2 seed in the AFC last season despite losing an NFL-runner-up 81 games by starters due to injury. Indianapolis lost Peyton Manning's go-to guy Marvin Harrison for 11 games, Pro Bowl pass rusher Dwight Freeney for seven games and starting tackles Ryan Diem and Tony Ugoh for a combined 11 games. Yet the Colts still posted a 13-3 record with Manning and a makeshift cast. If the Colts stay reasonably healthy in 2008, they are back in the mix for a second Super Bowl championship in three seasons. Running back Joseph Addai is an emerging star.
Final '07 ranking: 4
Let's face it - the Cowboys should have been in the Super Bowl last year. For 17 weeks they were the best team in the NFC. They owned a record 13 Pro Bowlers and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But the Cowboys haven't won a post-season game in 11 years. You must win in January before you can win in February. December also has been a mystery for this team with a 4-5 record in the Tony Romo era. Talent-wise, the Cowboys rank with the Patriots and Colts. But the two AFC teams have proven they can win in the pressure situations. The Cowboys haven't.
Final '07 ranking: 6
4. San Diego
Norv Turner as a coach and the Chargers as a team took huge steps toward credibility in 2007 with a trip to the AFC title game. Now the Chargers have had a year in Turner's offense. Quarterback Philip Rivers has two playoff victories under his belt, one at home and one on the road, and he'll have speedy wide receiver Chris Chambers at his disposal for a full season. LaDainian Tomlinson remains the best runner, Antonio Gates the best tight end and Shawne Merriman the best pass rusher in the NFL.
Final '07 ranking: 3
The name of the game on defense is the pass rush. When defensive coordinator Mike Smith left to become the head coach at Atlanta, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio used the opportunity to hire a pass-rush specialist in Gregg Williams. He put together top 10 defenses this decade for Tennessee, Buffalo and Washington. Then Del Rio gave Williams the tools to implement his scheme. There were four elite pass rushers in this draft and the Jaguars selected two of them, Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves.
Final '07 ranking: 7
6. NY Giants
The Giants became the sixth wild card to win a Super Bowl. Of the first five, three didn't qualify for the playoffs the next season. The only wild card to repeat was Denver in 1998 - and the Broncos had John Elway. Have you bought into Eli Manning yet? The Giants played shutdown defense in the postseason, taking out the high-powered offenses Dallas, Green Bay and New England in consecutive games.
Final '07 ranking: 1
The Steelers changed their head coach in 2007 but not the team's personality. Pittsburgh continues to run the ball and play suffocating defense, finishing third in the NFL in rushing and first in defense in Mike Tomlin's debut season as coach. But a first-round home playoff loss was shocking. The running game fell off at the end of the year when Willie Parker suffered a broken leg, so the Steelers drafted some insurance in Big Ten MVP Rashard Mendenhall.
Final '07 ranking: 10
The Browns won 10 games but failed to qualify for the playoffs. Offense wasn't the problem. QB Derek Anderson, WR Braylon Edwards and TE Kellen Winslow were Pro Bowlers and RB Jamal Lewis a 1,300-yard rusher. But Cleveland ranked 30th in defense and 27th against the run. So the Browns traded for almost 700 pounds of quality bulk at defensive tackle, acquiring Shaun Rogers from the Detroit Lions and Corey Williams from the Packers.
Final '07 ranking: 11
A slow start - 0-2, then 1-3 - doomed the Eagles in the NFL's most competitive division in 2007. But victories at Washington and Dallas in the second half of the season reminded the East that Philadelphia continues to lurk. The Eagles intercepted an NFL-low 11 passes last season and forced a league-low 19 turnovers. So the Eagles signed Pro Bowl CB Asante Samuel away from the Patriots in free agency. He had 10 interceptions himself in 2006.
Final '07 ranking: 15
Age and eight seasons of NFL wear-and-tear caught up with Shaun Alexander last season and the Seahawks finished 20th in the NFL in rushing. So Seattle cut the league's 2005 rushing champion and MVP. The Seahawks signed free agent Julius Jones to replace him and gave him a big new blocker in free-agent Mike Wahle. Seattle continues to benefit from its residency in the NFC West, where Arizona, San Francisco and St. Louis self-destruct annually.
Final '07 ranking: 8
With the quarterback concerns in Green Bay and Chicago, the Vikings see an opening in the NFC North and took a win-now approach this offseason. They traded for NFL sack leader Jared Allen and signing Chicago go-to guy Bernard Berrian away from the Bears. But contention will hinge on the development of their own young QB Tarvaris Jackson.
Final '07 ranking: 17
12. New Orleans
With Drew Brees, Reggie Bush and a healthy Deuce McAllister, the Saints have an offense that's Super Bowl-ready. But after finishing 26th in defense, New Orleans needed to overhaul that side of the ball.
Final '07 ranking: 22
It's still on-the-job training for Vince Young, who threw almost twice as many interceptions (17) as touchdowns (9) in his second season. But the Titans are winning along the way, finishing 10-6 last season for a wild-card playoff berth.
Final '07 ranking: 9
14. Tampa Bay
The Bucs won the NFC South in 2008 despite the absence of star running back Carnell Williams for 12 games with a knee injury. He's back, and Warrick Dunn returns to Tampa as an insurance policy. Monte Kiffin is restocking the defense with youth.
Final '07 ranking: 12
The arm of Dan Marino made the Dolphins a playoff contender throughout the 1990s even when Miami's running game and defense weren't up to par. That's the fate of Carson Palmer now in Cincinnati. He's a franchise quarterback with an inadequate cast.
Final '07 ranking: 20
The Bills lost a league-high 89 games by starters due to injury and finished 30th in the NFL in offense and 31st in defense. Yet Buffalo chased a playoff berth into December, finishing 7-9 with two losses coming on last-second field goals.
Final '07 ranking: 21
The Oilers had the misfortune of playing in the same division with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. Now the Texans have the misfortune of playing in the same division with the Indianapolis Colts in the 2000s.
Final '07 ranking: 15
18. Green Bay
The retirement of Brett Favre takes the winningest and most prolific passer in NFL history out of a Green Bay uniform this season. Inexperienced and untested Aaron Rodgers replaces him. This is a talented team.
Final '07 ranking: 5
The offense cratered with the loss of QB Jake Delhomme last September. The Panthers wound up 29th in the NFL in offense and fell from the ranks of playoff contenders. Coach John Fox overhauled his roster, deleting seven starters.
Final '07 ranking: 23
The highest-paid coaching staff in the NFL delivered a 9-7 record and wild-card finish in 2007. Now head coach Joe Gibbs, offensive coordinator Al Saunders and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams are all gone.
Final '07 ranking: 13
The NFL's 28th-ranked pass defense kept the Cardinals from contending for a playoff spot in 2007. So Arizona signed a pass rusher (Clark Haggans) in free agency and drafted a cornerback (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie).
Final '07 ranking: 16
The Bears must have a ton of confidence in young tight end Greg Olsen because they let starting wideouts Muhsin Muhammad and Bernard Berrian walk out the door. They cut Muhammad and let Berrian sign in free agency with the Vikings.
Final '07 ranking: 19
23. St. Louis
Three starting offensive lineman finished the 2007 season on injured reserve, which explains why the Rams rushed for a league-low five touchdowns, allowed 48 sacks and threw an NFL-high 28 interceptions.
Final '07 ranking: 31
Plenty young pieces are in place, especially with the addition of dynamic rookie RB Darren McFadden. But two huge question marks remain at head coach (Lane Kiffin) and quarterback (JaMarcus Russell).
Final '07 ranking: 29
The experiment with Mike Martz and his Greatest-Show-on-Turf offense fizzled. Too many turnovers cost him his job as offensive coordinator after one season. So defense and the running game are back in.
Final '07 ranking: 24
26. Kansas City
The Chiefs are following the route taken by Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys - trade away your best player (DE Jared Allen) and use the draft picks to accelerate the rebuilding. Pencil in these rookies as starters: DT Glenn Dorsey, OT Brandon Albert and CB Brandon Flowers.
Final '07 ranking: 28
When the Ravens committed a league-high 40 turnovers in 2007, it cost offensive guru Brian Billick his job as head coach. John Harbaugh inherits a talented but aging defense and a huge question mark at QB. Final '07 ranking: 25
As head coach and executive vice president of football operations, Mike Shanahan has fired coordinators and quarterbacks and even run off a GM. When is he going to hold himself accountable for this mess? He has won one playoff game since John Elway retired in 1999.
Final '07 ranking: 18
29. NY Jets
The Jets couldn't protect their quarterbacks (53 sacks) and couldn't stop the run (29th in the NFL) in 2007. So they signed free agent blockers Alan Faneca and Damien Woody and traded for former Pro Bowl DT Kris Jenkins.
Final '07 ranking: 27
30. San Francisco
Five starters are gone from a team that finished 32nd in offense, 25th in defense and 5-11 in the West. Is that addition by subtraction? The 49ers signed WR Isaac Bruce in free agency but at 35 how much gas is left in his tank?
Final '07 ranking: 26
Tony Sparano is the new coach and Jeff Ireland the new GM but make no mistake about it - this is a Bill Parcells team. The Dolphins will be bigger and stronger with new linemen Jason Ferguson, Justin Smiley and Jake Long.
Final '07 ranking: 32
Owner Arthur Blank is trying to distance himself from the Mike Vick era, drafting QB Matt Ryan to be the new face of the franchise. Blank also has a new GM (Thomas Dimitroff), a new coach (Mike Smith) and little optimism.
Final '07 ranking: 30